I’m going to say something sacrilegious here: Bob’s Grill in Conway, Arkansas doesn’t have food worth writing home about. The pie is delicious enough. The pancakes are fluffy enough. The hash browns are usually burnt but I like them. But honestly, it doesn’t matter. You don’t go to Bob’s Grill because they have to-die-for food. You don’t go because of what Bob’s Grill serves. You go because of what Bob’s Grill is.
Most mornings, there’s a clinking of spoons in coffee mugs and women hoofing through tables with pots of hot coffee in hand, asking if customers need “topping up.” Some rustling of papers and creaking of seats accompany the normal scene at Bob’s Grill. The waitresses take orders with “sweetie” or “honey” or any other epitaph that might be meaningful once but have since become nothing more than a gratuitous addition through years of overuse. In the back at the kitchen, things sizzle on the grill and smells waft into the air as plates clatter together. None of these things make Bob’s special. What’s the most interesting about Bob’s Grill is the people and the things they talk about.
Downtown Conway has been home to Bob’s Grill for a long time and it’s where Conway locals go to gossip and eat. I’m at Bob’s Grill this morning, enjoying the latest tech gossip with other Conway tech people. At the table next to us is, inevitably, someone else enjoying some other variety of Conway gossip.
It’s general cafeteria style fare, with a good, solid breakfast menu and daily lunch specials. The same waitresses have been serving many of the same customers for decades. Almost every smaller town has a Bob’s Grill, where everyone has been at least once in their life and there is a dedicated crowd that comes as often as they can afford. It’s the kind of place where seniors enjoy ample discounts and slices of pie come on plastic plates covered with plastic wrap until served.
In my hometown, Bob’s Grill is called My Sister & I’s. The Bob’s Grill in the town where my boyfriend grew up recently closed. The town has been struggling to find a replacement. These sorts of town diners are part of the community in such a way that they impact the way life works—without these town diners, towns aren’t as much of a community. When they grow to large or too small and lose the town diner, part of the community goes with it.
Town diners make me a bit nervous because each one has a certain insider code. You know to go seat yourself in some and in others you know you must wait for a waitress to tell you where to sit so everyone gets their fair share of customers. Other town diners you know to order what you want, even if it’s not on the menu. In others, there’s no menu to speak of but just a whiteboard with what’s new, most of which hasn’t changed in years.
Getting to know your town diner and learning how to be a customer is the same as learning how to become part of a new community.